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The twelfth of the wisdom sayings in the chapter of St Benedict's Rule on the Tools of Good Work 'delicias non amplectari', or 'not to become attached to pleasures', alternatively translated as 'not to seek soft living'.
Vanity of vanities...
St Gregory the Great asserts in the very first chapter of his life of St Benedict that:
"All vain pleasure he despised, and though he was in the world, and might freely have enjoyed such commodities as it yields, yet he esteemed it and its vanities as nothing."
Avoiding soft living is one of the harder things to do for most of us these days, but it is an important issue for Christians, particularly addressed in today's Benedictine Office at least, where the Old Testament reading at Matins is from Ecclesiastes Chapter 1, Solomon's famous dissertation that begins 'Vantity of vanities, all is vanity'.
The commentary on this by St John Chrysostom points out that Christians have a particular call to asceticism, in imitation of the angelic life:
"When Solomon was held captivated by the concupiscence of worldly things, he reckoned them great and wonderful and spent much labor and care upon them...but when he had come to himself, and was able as it were, from a shadowy abyss, to look again on the light of true wisdom, the he uttered that sublime word, worthy of heaven: "Vanity of vanities, " he said, "all is vanity." This maxim, and one more sublime, you too will utter concerning this untimely pleasure if you cut yourself off for a little while from evil habits....we are called to a worthier life. We ascend to a higher summit and are trained in worthier arenas. And what else are we commanded but to live like those supernal, incorporal, and intellectual powers?"
The example of the monastic life
Traditionally, of course, monasticism provided us with an ascetic ideal to live up to.
St Benedict noted that while 'the life of a monk ought at all to times to be lenten in character' few have the strength for that (RB 49). Similarly, a layperson cannot be expected to observe the strict fasts and other disciplines of the monk at all times.
Nonetheless, the presence of ascetic communities in our midst that do adopt a much stricter lifestyle, where they exist, can help spur us, by their example of what can be done, to greater fervour. These days of course, most monasteries have abandoned this function, the point of which, as St John Chrysostom reminds us, is not just training in virtue, penance for our sins, or identification with the sufferings of Christ, but also to free us for higher things, such as prayer and meditation, in imitation of the angels. For this very reason medieval monastic theology often portrayed monasticism as the angelic life.
We need to recover this idea though, and strive to experience what we can of the angelic life, particularly in our participation in the liturgy. And we should pray for more monasteries to set it as a concrete symbol of what is to come here in our midst.